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Mr Ling makes a difference

Yesterday I received an email from someone I had not heard from for a decade. It reminded me that this week marks ten years since an episode in their life in which I played some part. It thanked me for investing time and energy in their future and reported that consequently the last ten years have been professionally fulfilling. You can imagine that the news warmed my heart.

Teaching, which I have spent most of my life doing, does give you an ideal opportunity to invest in other people’s lives. It often seems to end after the last day in the classroom. And you normally don’t hear much about those of your efforts which have been negative - and you know there must be some. This week's email reminded me that our words and actions do produce effects, sometimes unanticipated, in others for good or ill.

I remember with gratitude those many teachers who invested their energies in me and my learning. One man at primary school was particularly interested in history and poetry. I still have a book of his poems. A teacher at secondary school, a Yorkshireman, decided (rightly) that what I needed most was to be provoked, kicked into action. A lecturer (a Latvian woman, gentle but incisive) who made all the difference to my work as an undergraduate. Another Yorkshireman who supervised my research and was an example in so many ways beyond the writing a thesis of how to live.

Did I write to thank them? Sadly only the last one. He did live to see some interest on his investment in me but I wish I had been more fulsome.

Of course you don’t have to be a teacher to make a difference. And the difference need not be life-changing to be important. There are small opportunities for all of us to help people to grow a little even in the simplest of ways. We can shore up people’s flagging confidence in themselves. We can in some small way favour their interests over our own. We can resist any rising tide of cynicism.

Investing yourself in people means giving them something however small or invisible which will nurture them in some way well after the event. I have just taken from my bookshelf a slim book of poems written by my primary school teacher, Robert Ling. It is dog-eared - I have not looked at it for many years. I realise for the first time what a learned man he was. Most of it was written during World War II from the eastern Mediterranean. His poems mention the names of all kinds of great people whose works I only learned of much later in life. Two poems are in French. What was he doing in a primary school classroom? I owe him more than I realised. So I end with a fragment from his poem ‘The Joy of Life’ dated 22.8.44. Mr Ling could not have imagined that one day I would write a blog about him.

“No pride, no sterile mass of empty learning,

Can give the peace of mind we all would know;

For simple things come nearest to Perfection,

And simple things endure through pain and strife”.

My belated thanks to Robert Ling. He made a difference.

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